Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 15, 2011

The Japanese Earthquake, Sophocles and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson yesterday wrote a nice calming article absolving the human race from any guilt or soul-searching with regard to the Japanese Tsunami. In doing so, he refutes Sophocles’ Antigone: “Many are the terrors [deinon] of the Earth, says the chorus in Sophocles, and nothing is more terrible [deinon] than mankind” (Greek added by the pedant, me), saying “even Sophocles was capable of talking bilge”.

I take issue with both his rubbishing of Sophocles and his central argument. After setting up a straw man of kooks, the latter is summed up in the statement “The most important lesson here is that there are no lessons for human behaviour, and over coming days it is vital that we watch out for the preachers and the moralisers who will try to use it to further their campaigns. First off the blocks, I see, is the anti-nuke lobby.” He concludes by saying that “There is no rhyme or reason to an earthquake, and we should for once abandon our infantile delusion that we are the cause and maker of everything.”

Boris is being a bit disengenuous with the Sophocles-bashing, as he must be aware that the word he defines as “terrors” and “terrible” (deinon) is not unambiguous. In fact, far from being rubbish, Sophocles’ words illuminate the point I am about to make in reply, which is this: Risk is defined and created in reference to human beings. Further: Our actions and decisions, collective and individual, profoundly shape the risks we are exposed to. It is therefore, in fact, very adult to consider how we contribute to risk.

As my colleague Stephan Mergenthaler pointed out recently, there is no risk without a subject. Ultimately, an earthquake is just a rippling of the earth. It is only a risk when we have built structures, societies and economies (and nuclear facilities) that might be interrupted by such rippling. And even more than the need for a subject to experience the risk, as I’ve written about before, we very often contribute to the creation of risk inadvertently, even while actively trying to reduce it.

Now apart from the entirely rational decision to continue to live on a fault-line and accept the occurrence of earthquakes as a part of life, it is fairly ridiculous for anyone to argue that that the Japanese could have or should have done anything different to prepare for the tragedy that just occurred, and I’m not suggesting this. Far from it. The earthquake in Japan is a tragedy of enormous proportions. The fact that Tokyo remains standing after four minutes of unbelievably violent shaking is astounding, and testament to the foresight of councils who designed building codes and engineers who enacted them. Despite all the fears of widespread radiation release, the damaged nuclear reactors are well-designed and have orders of magnitude more containment systems when compared to previous nuclear incidents: according to some experts (if not the media) there is still a very low risk of a Chernobyl-like accident where the fuel rods themselves were ejected from the facility during an explosion (UPDATE: recent updates are quite worrying!). Furthermore, the calm response and community spirit displayed by the Japanese people in general after the crisis shows that, as a society, they are inherently resilient to such shocks, and throws other similar disasters into sharp relief.

However I’m upset that Boris is willing to abdicate almost wholly the role of humankind in creating the conditions for risk in order, it seems, to preserve the option of nuclear power in the UK as an energy source. The bottom line is that when adopting any cause of action it is only rational that should be aware of the risks that are created thereby, both local and systemic. And certain causes of action have the capacity, perhaps extremely remote, to create risks of truly frightening proportions. One example of that can be seen in the adoption of certain derivatives in financial markets which, in part thanks to their opacity , contributed to the recent global financial crisis thanks to their systemic impact. Another example is nuclear power which, under certain circumstances, has proved to create radioactive fallout that poses serious health risks to local populations.

Rather than taking an extreme position on this, on the one hand by rejecting promising technologies or innovations out of hand simply because they are scary, ill-understood or give rise to irrational superstitions (as Boris implicitly accuses the anti-nuke lobby of doing), or on the other hand by claiming that such concerns are “infantile delusions” and we need to simply accept that nature will deal risks out of our control, I prefer a middle way. I would like to see an explicit and transparent acceptance by governments and the media that the actions we take in terms through both the use of technologies, and even simply how we build our communities and economic interactions, do create serious risks, particularly over long time periods and when combined with extreme exogenous shocks. Further, I’d like us all to acknowledge that there are boundaries of our knowledge in relation to those risks, and that therefore we, as a society, are prepared to accept them based on our current understanding but are prepared to abandon them if it turns out the risk is higher than we are willing to bear.

And, I’d like Boris to admit, Balliol classics scholar that he is, that a more nuanced investigation of the use of deinon in Greek tragedy (see for instance Darien Shanske’s Thucydides and the Philosophical Origins of History) might be a more productive way of viewing Sophocles’ words (p90). Rather than characterizing them as hyperbolic bilge that is overly solipsistic, an alternative interpretation might see such the “terribleness” or “dreadfulness” of deinon as an essential part of human nature – that which separates humankind from other animals, as Shankse suggests is evident in Antigone. Even more starkly for this context, Shankse points out that in Hesiod, deinon is used in the sense that “Humans are always pushing too far, pushing doing what they must do one step beyond the boundary they cannot see, and are undone.” (p81) Sophocles might therefore thoughtfully illuminating an essential characteristic of mankind in relation to our creation and experience of tragedy that explains the post-crisis soul-searching Boris laments.

We should indeed be humbled by the earthquake and always see ourselves in the perspective of forces far greater than our own. But this should not be an excuse to abdicate our responsibility to one another in light of such forces in terms of how we create and magnify risk: in my view, regardless of if we are truly deinon or not (and I fear we are), we should do everything possible such that our actions and decisions increase, rather than decrease, our collective resilience and prosperity. Sophocles of course might retort that this is futile. But we should still try.



  1. Well said, Nick, as always. I never cease to be amazed at the kind of pretzel logic a certain kind of person can use to justify the most arrogantly, absurdly risky actions.

    I also boggle at the shameless disingenuousness of radicalizing your opponents’ perspectives in order to discredit them. To call people irrational any time they disagree with your apparently divine right to do whatever the hell you feel like doing, consequences be damned — well, it gets quite tedious. And frankly, it’s the coward’s way out.

  2. I like your Heisod quote. For example, the efficiency-driven application of just-in-time ‘principles’ to fuel looks a bit silly when there is a real risk of a crisis covering a large significantly populated area. Given the dependence on electricity and the drivers for ‘efficiency’ there, this means just about any developed area.

    In a deregulated capitalist economy with a ‘small’ government, how would sufficient fuel and water reserves be maintained? (Another problem of ‘leverage’?)

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